In putting together my new book, So Wrong for So Long, on Iraq and the media, I revisited the good, the bad, and the ugly in war coverage from the run-up to the invasion through the five years of controversy that followed. Even though I monitored the coverage closely all along, I was continually surprised to come across once-prominent names, quotes, and incidents that had faded to obscurity. Here is a list of 18 of those nearly forgotten episodes, in roughly chronological order.
1) The day before the invasion, Bill O’Reilly said, “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation; I will not trust the Bush administration again, all right?”
2) Phil Donahue lost his show at MSNBC, he later claimed, because he did not wave the flag enough. A leaked NBC memo confirmed Donahue’s suspicion, noting that the host “presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war…. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
3) After the fall of Baghdad, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews declared, “We’re all neocons now.”
4) The same day, Joe Scarborough, also on MSNBC, said, “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians, and Hollywood types.”
5) The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman wrote, “As far as I am concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war…. Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons.”
6) President Bush’s comedy routine during the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., on March 24, 2004, included a bit about the still-missing WMD. While a slide show of the president scouring the White House was projected on the wall behind him, he joked, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere…Nope, no weapons over there…Maybe under here?” Most of the crowd roared, and there was little criticism in the media in following days. Mother Jones‘ David Corn, then Washington editor of The Nation, was one of the few attendees to criticize the routine. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if Ronald Reagan had, following the truck bombing of our Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, said at a similar dinner, “Guess we forgot to put in a stoplight.”
7) Who was the first mainstream editor/columnist to call for a U.S. pullout? It was the unlikely Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today, who is certainly not known for expressing anti-war or liberal views. His May 2004 column drew wide reader protest but “the old fighting infantryman” (as the former soldier billed himself) stuck to his guns and penned a few more columns in that vein in the years that followed.
8) When the New York Times carried its now-famous editors’ note on May 26, 2004, admitting some errors in its WMD coverage, it appeared on page A10 and Judith Miller’s name was nowhere to be found. The note is often described today as an “apology,” but it was no such thing. On the day it ran, Executive Editor Bill Keller, not exactly chastened, called criticism of the Times‘ coverage “overwrought” and said that the main reason it even published the note was because the controversy had become a “distraction.”
9) Likewise, it’s often said that the Washington Post also issued an apology. But the criticism of its prewar coverage came not in an editors’ statement but in an article by the paper’s media critic, Howard Kurtz. Post editors offered several defenses for the coverage and top editor Len Downie argued that it didn’t make much difference anyway, because tougher coverage would not have stopped the war.
10) Stephen Colbert’s routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April 2006 is remembered for the in-his-face mockery of President Bush—but he also spanked the press, perhaps one reason his mainstream reviews were mixed at best. Addressing the correspondents directly, Colbert said, “Let’s review the rules. The president makes decisions; he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction.”
11) In one of the purest “my bads” of the war, Fox News’ John Gibson ripped Neil Young after the rocker released his protest album Living With War. Gibson demanded that Young go see the new United 93 movie and even offered to buy his ticket. Young, it was soon pointed out, had actually written one of the first 9/11 songs—”Let’s Roll,” about, you guessed it, Flight 93.
12) Surprise: David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and Oliver North all came out against the “surge” last January after it was announced by President Bush. George Will wrote a column titled, “Surge, or Power Failure?” And, after the botched hanging of Saddam, Charles Krauthammer declared, “We should not be surging American troops in defense of such a government.”
13) When Valerie Plame finally testified before Congress in March 2007, much of the media coverage focused on her appearance. Mary Ann Akers wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled “Hearing Room Chic,” noting that Plame wore “a fetching jacket and pants” and should be played by Katie Holmes in the movie version of her story because they both favor Armani.
14) On March 27, 2007, John McCain, referring to the supposed calm settling on Baghdad, said, “General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed Humvee.” This turned out to be pure bunk, but McCain quickly visited Iraq to try to prove his overall point. There, the Arizona senator went from the ridiculous to the maligned, touring a Baghdad market and claiming all was safe—while troops surrounded him and helicopters twirled overhead. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) likened the scene to “a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.”
15) In April 2007, CBS’ Bob Simon admitted to Bill Moyers that his network should have dug deeper into the false claims on WMD. “I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it, in a way, almost light—if that doesn’t seem ridiculous,” he said.
16) Contrary to popular belief, the New York Times, which had editorialized against the invasion, did not call for a change in course or the beginning of a withdrawal from Iraq until July 8, 2007.
17) On Meet the Press in July 2007, David Brooks declared that 10,000 Iraqis a month would perish if the United States pulled out. Bob Woodward, also on the show, challenged him on this, asking for his source. Brooks admitted, “I just picked that 10,000 out of the air.”
18) Also in July 2007, an old clip of a C-SPAN interview with Vice President Cheney from 1994 surfaced, in which he defended the decision not to depose Saddam Hussein during Gulf War I: “Once you got to Iraq and took it over…then what are you going to put in its place?…It’s a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq.” He explained, “And the question for the president…was how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? Our judgment was, not very many, and I think we got it right.”